Confessions of a Political Animal

January 4, 2012

I want to talk about welfare reform. Liam Byrne won’t let me.

Filed under: Labour Party,Poverty,Public spending — Political Animal @ 9:11 pm

I want to talk about welfare reform. Liam Byrne won’t let me.

Resheath your pens, denizens of the Fourth Estate. This isn’t a tale of shadow cabinet ministers cracking down on free expression by humble bag-carriers.

Over the New Year holiday, the forces of Twitter were unleashed on the shadow secretary of state for work and pensions. He knew they would be. He wanted them to be. Otherwise he wouldn’t have pre-briefed the Daily Mail in advance of his not-massively-controversial-when-taken-on-its-own Guardian piece on welfare reform. Not being a paper that puts many coins in the nuance meter, the Mail duly obliged with a piece heavy on the rhetoric of ‘scroungers’, ‘cheats’ and ‘evils’.

The Mail article predicted a fight with ‘the left’, a prediction that even Old Mother Shipton could probably have managed to get right. Though when the fight immediately came, those ranged against the ‘new line’ on welfare included large sections of the Labour centre and right as well. Again, Byrne won’t mind. Some have said he’s a Blairite who still sees getting into a scrap with both the intra-  and extra-Labour ‘left’ (however defined) as a vote winner. Being increasingly disinterested in such labeling, I’ll simply describe him as a politician doing what a certain breed of politician has always done – seeking identity through conflict. It’s a tactic as old as the hills and generally about as useful for gaining votes as said hills.

Twitter, like the Daily Mail, isn’t a great place for nuance. It provided very little over those days. A lot of the condemnation that Byrne received, particularly over the Mail piece, was more than justified. Sure, there’s those who can’t see the words ‘welfare’ and ‘reform’ together on a page and not immediately label the writer as a Thatcherite lickspittle. But there were many who pointed out precisely where the language of ‘the scrounger’ leads us. To the demonisation of the vast majority of genuine benefit claimants, to finger-pointing, to misplaced blame. To the steadily growing instances of hate crimes against the disabled, to the suicides, to the stigma and to the political space it gives to the forces of reaction in the two governing parties to chip away still further at the welfare settlement.

These, by themselves, are more than good enough reasons not to engage in such easy, throw-away rhetoric, even if the words that appear under your actual byline are far more measured. But there is a further reason: by doing so, you in fact close down the debate on welfare reform and make genuine reform all but impossible. You condemn the British welfare state – the Beveridgian inheritance Byrne proclaims himself to be an heir of – to another decade of managed decline.

Let me be honest – I don’t think the British welfare state works. That doesn’t mean I want to throw every recipient of benefits on the breadline. For probably somewhere in the region of 99% of claimants, I would be happy to die (metaphorically at least) in the last political ditch to ensure a continued guarantee of those benefits. But I’m not necessarily prepared to offer even so useless a sacrifice for the system that calculates and writes that cheque. The Welfare State is a post-war creature, predicated on full employment, jobs for life, stay-at-home mothers, the nuclear family and predictable cycles of boom and recession. Like a vast, gothic cathedral, it is a magnificent edifice. The very scale and noble purpose of it can make the most secular heart sing. But we’ve tried patching it up to make it more suitable for the modern age. It’s worked in places – the tax credit system is doing a passable job of keeping the rain from leaking through the sacristy roof, for example – but there’s only so far this can go.

The British welfare state is inflexible, complex, user-unfriendly, faceless and unpersonalised. When I make those criticisms, that doesn’t mean I want a replacement which is less generous or more austere to those in need. In fact, I want to see a system which doesn’t lead to billions in benefits going unclaimed – as many have pointed out, that, in terms of scale,  is the true scandal, not the relatively limited benefit fraud.

But I also know that one of the key pillars of the post-war welfare settlement is legitimacy in the eyes of the public. I’ve canvassed enough Labour heartlands (and non-Labour heartlands) to know that this is eroding. A lot of that is due to misreporting and misplaced rhetoric, based on a very limited number of genuine case of welfare state failure. But tell me that the average Labour voter doesn’t like the language of ‘scroungers’ and ‘cheats’ and I will laugh in your face.

That, however, is not an excuse to perpetrate it. By doing so, we simply enter an arms race with the Tories which we cannot win.

A political party cannot ignore public opinion; nor should it believe it cannot play a part in shaping it. The counsel of despair which is governance by the top-line findings of opinion pollsters leads to a non-courageous style of government which would never, for example, have seen Labour Home Secretaries abolish the death penalty or lower the age of consent. Rather than demonising the old welfare settlement, and particularly not those who depend on it, you address the concerns through a new settlement in which the majority can have confidence.

Soaring unemployment is creating a new influx of welfare state users, from a wide range of social backgrounds, including large numbers of graduates and professionals. Not only does this render a shift to generally abusing welfare recipients as politically short-sighted, it also misses that opportunity to build a new, legitimated, welfare settlement. The ‘new unemployed’ will quickly discover the shortcomings of the current system – the petty bureaucracy,  the low payments, the unwelcoming JobCentrePluses, advisers who, whilst committed, are going to struggle with this influx. They will demand change, improvement. And they have the political clout to do so.

This new unemployment is a personal and economic tragedy, yet it is also a political opportunity to forge a new consensus. A welfare state that is based around work where possible, and a comfortable existence where it isn’t; that personalises its offering for each client; that provides genuine training and (properly) paid work opportunities; that doesn’t stigmatise or dehumanise the long-term claimant. And yes, maybe Byrne is right to suggest a greater role for the contributory principle – I am not going to attack him for wishing to emulate parts of the often highly successful welfare systems of much of northern Europe.

So, I should be excited by the opportunities for welfare reform, and for my party to be spearheading them. But I’m not. Because instead, Liam Byrne has catapulted us into a pointless, degrading and actually rather childish debate about  linguistics. Rather than a victory for those who want to debate welfare reform, even if we don’t agree with every dot and comma of Byrne’s stance, he has handed a victory on a plate to the conservatives (lower case ‘c’ intentional) on both left and right who will countenance no reform. He has removed the option of nuance and made it harder for genuine welfare radicals to put their heads above the parapet. And by failing to link in policies on job creation to the narrative on welfare reform, he has left many people shaking their heads as to the disconnect with the most pressing economic debate.

I disagree with Liam Byrne on a lot, but I don’t think he’s an evil benefit-snatcher. I’m not, as Owen Jones puts it, ‘ashamed to share a party card with him’. I joined a broad church party, and by doing so happily accepted that I’d be sharing a card with Byrne. But I thought the leadership had learnt some lessons on the linguistics of welfare reform. To my mind, Ed Miliband’s biggest mistake since taking over the leadership was the line in his Coin Street speech in which he appeared to qualify himself to judge a man on incapacity benefits’ ability to work. This soured an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent speech on responsibility ‘at top and bottom’, and rightly caused anger. At party conference, Miliband seemed genuinely contrite and understanding about why that had been an error. I don’t think he, personally, will make it again. But he has allowed Byrne off the leash to make that mistake on his part, and by doing so has damaged the prospects of a new welfare settlement being at the heart of Labour’s next manifesto, where it belongs.

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June 21, 2010

Time for the street-fighting council

On May 6th 2010, Labour won by a small landslide.

Yes, you did read that correctly. Because as the party fell to defeat in parliamentary seats across the country, it swept to power in London borough after London borough. Before the elections, of 32 London boroughs, Labour had majority control of just 7, running a further one in a coalition and one more as a result of having the elected mayor. By the evening of Friday 7th May, Labour had overall control of 17 boroughs, running one more as a minority administration. In 9 of the remaining 14 boroughs, Labour increased its number of seats. Eighteen months before the elections, I suggested that if the general and local elections were to coincide, this might prove to be to Labour’s benefit. So it turned out, but the results were far beyond what I predicted in that post. There is something more than just an increased turnout behind these very good results; and I believe that it has a direct bearing on how Labour councils in London, both newly-elected and returned, should conduct themselves over the next four years.

The easy answer to ‘Why did Labour do so well in London’ is that the party’s core vote turned out. But the core vote cannot deliver 18 boroughs – in reality (as was tested in 2006), it can be guaranteed to deliver about 5 boroughs. What turned out across London on May 6th was what I will describe as the ‘Core+’, a coalition of broadly progressive forces more akin to that which delivered two Livingstone victories than to that behind the 1997 landslide. With a Conservative victory nationally seen as certain, voters with personal or political reasons to fear the onset of Osbornomics (the radical, ideology-driven downsizing of the state using deficit reduction as a pretext) turned out, only partially in hope of preventing this, but equally to try to ensure that savage cuts would be opposed at a local level. For better or worse, this coalition of forces overwhelmingly saw Labour as the party best placed to deliver that opposition.  (more…)

May 24, 2010

A Job Description

This is a joint post by Political Animal and Lost Lucan

The brave new world has dawned, and in the hard cold morning following the battle we can survey the wreckage: the promise of retrenchment with a nasty twist. Cuts, and a re-pointing of the welfare state to the benefit of the better off, with a hike in VAT rather than employer’s National Insurance being used to fill the Treasury’s coffers. From amidst the dust and rubble we rise, clutching the few belongings remaining to us, to start again down the road to government.

And so who will lead us down the twisting path ahead? In some respects it matters not: the hats already thrown into the ring, and those promised to follow adorn the heads of a talented bunch, all of whom could make a decent stab at the task. We are fortunate in having an acting leader who is more than capable of setting the tone for the months and years ahead. No, what matters more is what policies we choose to pursue, around what principles we rally.

The government we face will be nasty, brutish and, sadly, not quite so short. In these times, it is imperative that we offer our new members and the electorate a distinct and decent platform, that we provide a strong voice for employees, the less well off and everyone else who does not fit into the Cameron mould and who would otherwise comprise the great ignored.  To that end, we believe that a successful Labour leader must pursue a progressive set of policies which promote not just equality of opportunity but equality of outcome, with an acceptance that the structural causes of poverty outweigh any impacts of so-called agency in preventing social mobility.

The Whigs had four policy areas to all but sacrifice upon the altar of ambition. We also propose four areas which, in our view, a successful candidate for the Labour leadership should  pursue. They are by no means the only important ones, but they strike at our core values, values which should not be offered up for any price. (more…)

December 31, 2009

I’m a London Taxpayer, and I approve this message

Visit London/Ryanair 'Only in London'

Visit London/Ryanair 'Only in London' (Click for full poster)

In November, the Evening Standard‘s City Hall Reporter Katharine Barney (now sadly culled) penned a short piece on a speech by Boris Johnson at the Royal Opera House. It appeared at first glance that this speech was something to celebrate – he was lauding the achievements of Visit London in attracting increased tourism to London despite the recession. Johnson claimed that by spending £2m, he had produced £50m. This sounds like a very welcome conversion to the cause of active, city-government led promotion of tourism on the part of the Mayor: after all, amongst his first acts in the job had been to slash around £6.5m from the promotional budget. But one sentence in Barney’s article stood out:

In a speech at the Royal Opera House, Mr Johnson praised his “Only in London” campaign, which included helping to pay for adverts for Ryanair and easyJet in foreign press.

The Mayor’s campaign helping to pay for budget airlines’ adverts? Really? Aren’t there supposed to be EU state aid rules about these sort of things?

Of course, it rings true because Johnson has form in this field. Transport for London poster sites carry free adverts for BA flights to New York as part of a supposedly reciprocal deal with the Big Apple’s transport authorities.

Intrigued by whether the Standard had got it right, and if bits of the GLA precept from my council tax bill were lubricating the marketing budgets of a couple of airlines, I fired off an FOI request to City Hall, who referred it over to the London Development Agency. Firstly, I asked whether the Standard quote above and its paraphrase of the Mayor represented accurate reportage. No, said the LDA, they would not be

accepting that the passages you quote are accurate reportage. (more…)

October 15, 2009

Hey, low earners! Thanks for the subsidy.

Fare change 2010

You can read plenty about Boris Johnson’s rather impressive hikes in TfL’s fares today elsewhere. With many of the increases coming in at more than 18 times the current rate of CPI, describing them as ‘inflation-busting’ would be like calling Richard Littlejohn ‘moderately right-wing’. And, worryingly for our jovial Mayor, for all his attempts to pass the blame for the increases off as being the fault of Ken Livingstone, the quite correct notion that Johnson inherited healthy TfL reserves and has bought this for the most part on himself is gaining traction. As Dave Cole notes, the extra revenue to be raised by the incredible 20% increase in Oyster Pay-as-You-Go fares on buses fits very neatly into the £50-£70m hole left by the removal of the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge.

Combine that with the decision not to proceed with the Gas-guzzler Charge, the end of the Venezuela oil deal, the scrapping of bendy buses and the advent of the neo-Routemaster – all at a time of falling fare-box income thanks to economic circumstances pertaining – and you begin to see where the hole comes from. And that’s why Boris is coming after you with his hat.

And when I say ‘you’, I mean ‘you’ (possibly), not ‘me’. One thing you won’t see much of in the coverage of the new fare regime is a complaint that you aren’t paying enough. Well, here’s one. The 2010 TfL fare settlement is too lenient on me – and on people like me. And it makes me sick. The graph at the top of this post may give you an idea why. (more…)

October 13, 2009

A Fare-ly Sketchy Strategy

boris tubeYesterday ought to have been one of the defining moments of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty. Three draft strategies published, covering housing, planning, economic development and transport (or, in other words, barring policing pretty much everything the Mayor has any meaningful influence over). Somehow, it didn’t quite feel that way, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, there is Johnson’s sudden ability to hide from public view when matters of substance and detail rear their ugly heads. The contrast with his normal persona is remarkable. After all, the Mayor is normally happy to engage in publicity  stunts for the TV cameras, write expensive rubbish for the Telegraph or inundate us with 13 oh-so-fascinating photos of himself at Conservative Party Conference via his Twitter account. But just as Blair didn’t do God, Johnson doesn’t do detail. So with three hefty documents being published in his name, Macavity wasn’t there. As Ken Livingstone’s former Chief of Staff Simon Fletcher writes on his blog:

Although these strategies are now up for public consultation, the mayor chose to launch them not with a press conference for the media who communicate with millions but with a meeting of City Hall staff.

All we, the great London unwashed,  got from the Mayor is a solitary tweet. (more…)

August 19, 2009

Laughing on the left side of your face

udderbellySome things are predictable about the Edinburgh Fringe: it’ll rain, the ticket prices will have crept up again, by the end of your stay there you’ll have seen enough good stuff to not mind the hole in your bank balance and that someone will have a whinge about just how ‘lefty’ the whole thing is.

This year, the honour of providing that final ingredient falls to Mr Peter Whittle, writing in the Daily Telegraph under the oh-so-arch headline ‘Edinburgh Festival to feature smug Lefty Tory-bashing. Again. Yawn.’ This is the first time Mr Whittle’s work had crossed my radar, so I took the opportunity to have a skim through his Telegraph back catalogue. It’s something I’d strongly recommend doing yourself.

Mr Whittle, we are told, is the founder/director of The New Culture Forum. The good news is, that if Peter Whittle’s output is anything to go by, the New Culture will be poorly-written, ill-researched and predictable. Oh yes, he’s that good. When an online article straight-facedly carries the tags ‘Smug lefty comedians’ and ‘Smug lefty Radio 4’, genius is at work.

We could leave aside the school-boy factual howlers, well documented by the commenters on the original article, but given they serve to demonstrate just how heavily rooted in genuine research Mr Whittle’s work is, they are worth running through: (more…)

June 3, 2009

Poison Ivy

Imperial College

Imperial College

In a little-noticed (except probably where it matters) move on Monday, the relatively new rector of Imperial College, Sir Roy Anderson, fired off the latest salvo in the War of Cameron’s Ear – which the Animal discussed here last year.

Speaking to the Evening Standard, and also covered by the student media here, Sir Roy eulogised the US’ elite Ivy League institutions and called for what he claimed were the top five UK universities to be privatised and “float free” of the state.

This is part of what appears to be a carefully co-ordinated strategy on the part of the research-intensive university vice-chancellors. Their sole aim is to get as ‘favourable’ an outcome from the forthcoming review of tuition fees as possible – i.e. a total removal of the current cap. You didn’t know there was a review due? No wonder – such is the silence on the subject from both main parties that one begins to imagine a conspiracy not to discuss the subject. The problem for both of them is – time is fast running out. The commitment following the 2004 legislation bringing in top-up fees was that the current cap on fees would be sacrosanct until the 2010-11 academic year. But that surely means that any decision on the future funding of Higher Education must be made within twelve months – either late in this parliament or early in the next. All parties are going to have to deal with this hot potato in election manifestos, so the silence is ominous.  (more…)

May 1, 2009

Revealed: £2.75m down the River

boris-johnson-11“One thing we cannot do is spend tens of millions keeping projects alive, for political reasons, when there is simply no government funding to deliver them. The truth is that we don’t have to cash to do everything we would like, and it is better to be honest than continue to play upon false hopes.”

Boris Johnson, “Way to Go“, November 2008

So said the Mayor last year, as a justification for removing any ambition from Transport for London’s infrastructure investment programme. Johnson’s implied criticism of the previous mayoral administration was that it had spent money developing and promoting transport projects that were unlikely to ever come to fruition. The weakness of the argument is palpable: it was investment in the development and promotion of schemes such as Crossrail and the East London Line Extension that paved the way for funding eventually emerging from central government.

However, a few schemes escaped the Johnson Axe, including stage 1 of the Greenwich Waterfront Transit, a partially-segregated bus route linking the Jubilee Line station at North Greenwich with Woolwich and Thamesmead. The principle aim of the route was to improve bus services to Thamesmead, a heavily deprived area on the borders of Greenwich and Bexley with woeful public transport links. Given the opprobium heaped on the Transit scheme by Boris-friendly commentators, in particular Andrew Gilligan, its survival in November was very surprising: all the more so as its proposed future extensions across the river had been rendered impossible through Johnson’s scrapping of the Thames Gateway Bridge. (more…)

April 23, 2009

Brain drain or brain dead?

darlingSo now we know. You only have to wait twelve years into a Labour government before you get a sensible top rate of tax. Much celebration ensued yesterday at the Town Hall when we realised that our beloved Chief Executive would be…erm…required to contribute generously to the economic recovery.

And why these sour grapes from a certain Mr Boris Johnson Esq? According to the BBC’s budget calculator, a hard-working 44 year old married man with 4 children under 16, earning £137,759 a year, plus £250,000 of self-employment income, will be £455.32 better off, thanks to the Chancellor’s largesse.

But to be serious, whilst the introduction of the 50% tax band is welcome, it is as Polly Toynbee rightly says, too late. Whilst I thought Cameron’s budget response to be a rather empty exercise in rhetorical grandstanding, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the Animal last attended a university debating club, one of his attacks ought to stick, although not really as Cameron meant it. Criticising the level of the budget deficit and the PBR, he rehearsed the old line about Labour ‘not fixing the roof while the sun was shining’. (more…)

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